BBC impartiality at risk because journalists ‘lack understanding of basic economics’
BBC journalists “lack understanding of basic economics”, according to an independent review of the corporation’s economics coverage.
Impartiality is at risk because some journalists at the corporation make assumptions and have gaps in their knowledge, the review found.
The thematic review into the broadcaster’s coverage of taxation, public expenditure, government borrowing and government debt was commissioned by the BBC board.
Its authors, economics experts Michael Blastland and Sir Andrew Dilnot, were tasked with assessing whether due impartiality was being achieved in these areas.
They said: “We think too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence in reporting it. This brings a high risk of impartiality.
“In the period of this review, it particularly affected debt. Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realise this can be contested and contestable.
“Several general assumptions seem to lurk like this, either unnoticed or uncorrected. Others that outsiders observed in BBC coverage were ‘more public spending is good’ and ‘tax cuts are good’.
“Whilst these views might seem to make intuitive sense, all favour some interests above others.”
Data ‘presented in most alarming way’
The report noted one on-air statement in which a BBC journalist said the Government “will have to…”, adding: “We appreciate this was made live and might have been unintended.
“Still, BBC journalists should exercise extreme caution before suggesting a government ‘will have to…’ raise taxes, cut taxes, cut spending, raise spending, cut debt, raise debt, etc – in any area.”
The authors also identified “an occasional temptation to hype – and we think hype is an impartiality issue. We don’t want to be bored either, but see breathless stories or headlines that seem to chase excitement by slanting data or evidence”.
On occasion, they said, data had been presented in “the most alarming way” possible.
The report said the criticism was aimed at “non-specialist” reporters, but added that “even senior journalists” have shown that they do not fully understand all the arguments.
One anonymous BBC journalist told the authors: “We’re a sort of team of arts graduates, basically.”
Another said a lack of “wise heads” in the newsroom had led to the BBC commissioning popular journalism stories based “on what people are searching for on Google”.
Responding to the review, the BBC board said: “This has provided new insight for us in how we understand and deliver due impartiality in this vital area of public policy. The review as a whole provides clear indications for how we can improve editorial standards and audience impact as a result.”
The board said it had asked Tim Davie, the director general, and his executive team to address the issues raised and put together a plan of action.